Wesley: Wouldn't be cost-effective. I'm sure we make a lot from cancer.
Marcus: Yes, the patent holder is a client.
A specific type of MacGuffin, the Cure for Cancer is something like a modern-day panacea. It is the ultimate medical achievement that everyone is looking for. Some people will want to sell it, some will want to spread it for free, and some will want to destroy it. Or it may be a plot point to get it Just in Time to the Littlest Cancer Patient.
For some reason (half Fantastic Aesop and half Status Quo Is God), the cure often has some horrific side effect — it causes zombies, is made from people, or what have you. Often combined with Withholding the Cure.
Note that the reason we don't have this in Real Life (and the reason it is so sought-after) is that "cancer" is an extremely general term for any number of diseases. Some of them have had cures discovered (or at least effective long-term treatments, or preventative vaccinations), but no miracle cure for the whole lot is forthcoming, and it's quite probable that we will never find one.
Minor variations include cures for other terminal, incurable diseases, such as Parkinson's and AIDS. As these are becoming more treatable, however, miracle cures for them are showing up less in fiction.
Compare Saved by the Phlebotinum.
- Big Finish Doctor Who. In I, Davros there's an offhand mention of the title character inventing the cure for cancer, but he's only reprimanded for wasting time and resources when he should be inventing weapons to be used against the Thals—this is in a nuclear war where radiation poisoning is rife. Davros is unimpressed with the short-sightedness of the Kaled leadership.
- Subverted in an issue of The Authority, in which a character clarifies at a news conference that The Engineer hasn't "cured cancer"; she's merely come up with a revolutionary new treatment for the most common form of leukemia.
- Wakanda in the Black Panther has had a cure for cancer for centuries, but they refuse to share it with the rest of the world because nowhere else deserves it.
- Note that this is part of a particular writer's run that may not be canonical as it contradicts many already established Marvel Universe facts.
- Mr. Block of Black Science exhibits a medical device he claims as this for his investor meeting. It's the centerpiece of his successful forays stealing technology from other dimensions.
- During the Dark Reign storyline, Norman Osborn invents a cure for cancer... and immediately weaponizes it in order to try to kill Deadpool (who has major blackmail material on him) since without his cancer, Deadpool's Healing Factor would go out of control and kill him.
- In the Marvel Comics Death of Captain Marvel plot arc, all the genius scientist superheroes work together to find a cure for the dying captain's cancer. Which does bring up the question of why they didn't do that years before instead of spending their time beating up bank robbers. More annoyingly, because Reed Richards Is Useless, the cures they did find, but wouldn't work on Mar-Vell because of his powers, are never released to the general public (as seen by the Marvel writers never mentioning them again).
- Another storyline, The Thanos Imperative, involves "The Cancerverse" — an Alternate Universe where Captain Marvel's life was saved... by killing Death. It turned all life in the universe into immortal, cancerous beings. The cure was worse than the disease indeed...
- A What If? where they cure Captain Marvel results in him becoming the cancer-spreading equivalent of Typhoid Mary, which spreads cancer throughout the galactic community, ends up killing the Thing, and results in him and his love interest being sent to a timeless empty dimension for eternity as they apparently can't find a way to cure the cure.
- Deadpool signed on with the Weapon X program because they promised they could cure his cancer. They ended up giving him a Healing Factor... that merged with the cancer and rendered him both nearly-indestructible and absolutely hideous.
- The plot of Doctor Strange: The Oath revolves around "Otkid's Elixir", a magic potion which Doc hopes will cure his manservant Wong's brain tumor. The ethical dilemma comes when Doc discovers that the elixir isn't just a cure for cancer, it's a cure for everything. Naturally, a corrupt pharmaceuticals company bent on Withholding the Cure interferes with him every step of the way.
- In New X-Men: Academy X, Prodigy is shown a vision of what would happen if he has the mental block preventing him from permanently gaining the knowledge he absorbs removed. The first thing he does after he leaves the school is work with his old roommate, Elixir, and he creates a cure for both cancer and AIDS (with the promise of curing every major disease on the planet) that he distributes around the world for free... at the cost of Elixir's life, since Prodigy created the cure by cutting his friend up too much.
- Spider-Man has a couple of enemies, Styx and Stone, who are a result of this. Stone was trying to create a vaccine against cancer, and Styx was his test subject. The result is that Styx is now a walking cancer, "rotting" people with a touch. Worse, it literally gives him pleasure (heavily implied to be orgasmic) to do so.
- In Spider-Man and the X-Men #2, Spidey notes that the LEGO Genetics technology that Sauron has could easily be used to cure cancer, considering it manipulates genetics on a whim on a wide swath of people. However, Sauron has only one thing on his mind, and doesn't feel like it.
Spider-Man: You can rewrite DNA on the fly, and you're using it to turn people into dinosaurs? But with tech like that, you could cure cancer!
Sauron: But I don't want to cure cancer. I want to turn people into dinosaurs.
- In Squadron Supreme, Tom Thumb travels to the future to steal the Scarlet Centurion's Panacea Potion (which can supposedly cure anything) to cure his cancer. However, Thumb discovered that the Potion consisted of no more than penicillin and a few complex vitamins; it worked with the people of the Centurion's time since over the many centuries the human species' immune systems had been improved through eugenics, but it was ineffective with people of the Twentieth Century.
- There's a Superman What If? story in which Lex Luthor apparently goes straight and starts using his brain for good, and he finds a cure for cancer.
- Superman: Red Son: After Luthor takes over, he makes the world into a Utopia. This includes not only a cure for cancer, AIDS, and all other forms of genetic disease, he even cures sleep.
- In Transmetropolitan, Spider keeps a bag of anti-cancer genes in his bathroom. Comes in handy with all the cigarettes and other assorted drugs he and his filthy assistants and mutant cat take.
- In Marvel Comics, the Venom symbiote feeds off of Eddie Brock's cancer when they're joined, keeping it at bay. After losing the symbiote, Brock encounters Martin Li, the good half of the supervillain Mister Negative, and Li's Healing Hands cures Brock's cancer permanently... which the side-effect of turning him into Anti-Venom. Something to do with his white blood cells and remnants of the symbiote. It's a comic book, just roll with it.
- Wonder Woman Vol 1: In #17 Dr. Lana Kurree creates a "cancer cure" called Plasmin. It is not treated as a cure all, just a very effective treatment that her boyfriend is trying to steal the patent for.
- Escape from the Moon: In the later sequel Scavenge for the Future, Spliced Genome is able to fix Aerostorm's lung cancer just by sending a magical pulse through her and harmlessly pulling all the cancer cells out, then disintegrating them.
- Much like everything else, parodied in I Am NOT Going Through Puberty Again!. The "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue mentions that Orochimaru discovered such a cure...except it only worked on sharks and turned them into "flying, amphibious hellbeasts". He was promptly barred from practicing medicine. As for the sharks, Kisame took custody and used them to start a circus.
- Played for Drama in Mega Man: Defender of the Human Race. Dr. Cossack's wife died of cancer prior to the start of the story and his grief drove him to try and find a cure to prevent others from suffering from it. But his devotion caused him to unintentionally neglect Kalinka and not realize how she needed help with her grieving, eventually resulting in her attempting suicide.
- Near the beginning of the animated Superman: Doomsday film, Superman is shown hanging out in the Fortress of Solitude trying to find a cure for cancer. Unfortunately, he can never quite get it, and he wonders aloud how he can build a robot that can see the future but fail at curing a regular human disease.
- Meanwhile, Lex Luthor hasn't cured cancer yet, but he has cured muscular dystrophy and is also working on AIDS and bird flu. He plans to reduce the cure's potency and turn it into a lifetime treatment for perennial income.
- In Daybreakers, when a human is turned into a vampire, it cures all of their ailments, including cancer. It also freezes their bodies at the age they were when they turned. Too bad they can only drink human blood which is in very short supply. That is, until a working substitute is found near the end.
- The scientists in Deep Blue Sea are growing giant super-smart sharks to harvest chemicals from the sharks' brains that can be used to cure Alzheimer. Unfortunately, the process involved GROWING GIANT SUPER SMART SHARKS!
- The machines that Elysium makes use of are manufactured by a Mega-Corp known as Armadyne. They are known as the Med-Pod 3000, and they'll cure anything from crow's feet to cancer. All it takes is a simple scan and brief surgery. Max DaCosta is trying to get to Elysium because he is dying from extreme radiation exposure, and using a Med-Pod would save his life. Frey, his childhood friend, is also desperate to get to Elysium because her daughter is dying of leukemia.
- In I Am Legend, scientists genetically modified the Measles virus in order to create a cure for cancer. Unfortunately, it mutated and one of the side effects was a Vampire Apocalypse.
- The zombies in I Eat Your Skin were created during an attempt to find this. As Dr. August Biladeau explains while dying, he was getting nowhere with the injections of the animals, so he started using the natives as human guinea pigs. However, instead of getting closer to a cure for cancer, the bombarded snake venom was sending up a curious reaction into the body tissues, making the subject devoid of will; a human vegetable. Three natives died because of Biladeau's futile attempts. When Dr. Bentley found the results of Biladeau's experiments, Bentley became obsessed with the idea of creating an army of the undead and threatened to expose Biladeau to the authorities unless he helped him with his mad scheme.
- This is Dr. Phillips' dream in Island of Terror. Unfortunately, he is presented as careless and impatient, leading to his efforts accidentally creating a race of bone-eating monsters.
- In The Man with Nine Lives, Dr. Mason's freezing therapy is being touted as potential cure for cancer. When the hospital forces a temporary halt to his experiments, he goes in search of the lost notes of Dr. Kravaal—the doctor who pioneered the therapy—in hopes of finding the missing component to guarantee success.
- Medicine Man. Dr. Robert Campbell (Sean Connery) discovers a cure for cancer and then loses it.
- Mimic puts a bit of a twist on this trope in that in order to stop an epidemic affecting the children of New York City, they don't engineer the giant mutant killer bugs to manufacture a direct cure, but because the Judas Breed specifically feed on cockroaches, the disease's carriers. They just become anthropophages after devouring the entire cockroach population.
- In The Monster Maker, Dr. Markoff has developed both a means of infecting people with acromegaly (a condition usually caused by a defective pituitary gland and having no known cure) and a cure for it. He plans to use the serums in a Poison and Cure Gambit.
- The T-Virus in the Resident Evil Film Series was created to fix nerve damage, regenerate limbs and cure diseases. Unfortunately, it worked a little too well, causing those infected to continue moving long after death.
- In Rise of the Planet of the Apes they're growing super-smart apes as test subjects to find a cure for Alzheimer's, only to find that their latest drug 1) kills humans and 2) MAKES APES EVEN MORE SUPER SMART!
- Shark Attack: Miles has been injecting the sharks with hormones so he can later harvest them for a cancer cure. He demonstrates this when he takes the hero to a young African boy who would have died if not for his cure. Steven calls him out for his breach of ethics by going to a developing country to test experimental drugs on children, and it later turns out that there's problems with the drug anyway.
- The Mad Scientist villain in Spiders II: Breeding Ground had a similar plan, breeding Giant Spiders on a seaborn vessel so he could study their immune system and use it to improve humanity. Where to start with the Hollywood Science on that one...
- In the Neil Gaiman short story "Changes", a cure for almost all forms of cancer known as "rebooting" is developed, which, while it cures any case of cancer overnight, also has the minor side effect of switching the patient's biological sex... until they take another dose, anyway. The intended use for the drug barely merits a mention after its creator realizes what happened to the first patient it's tested on.
- In the novel The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman, cancer is eradicated — and it's discovered, too late, that it was the downside of an important part of the metabolism, which has also been eradicated in the process, drastically reducing human lifespan.
- Downplayed in The Expanse; after Holden sustains a massive dose of radiation, he has to take anti-cancer pills daily for the rest of his life. It also turns out that they're very effective at killing an alien algae that colonizes human eyeballs.
- In the satirical book Looking Backwards at the '80s (written in 1979), it's discovered that clubbing baby harp seals to death causes their brains to release a chemical that cures cancer.
- In Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the main characters are clones created to be used as unlimited organ donors for the cure for cancer.
- 'Cancer cure = zombies' also appears in the Newsflesh series. In that case, it was accidentally combined with another genetically-engineered virus designed to cure the common cold.
- In Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, a cure was made for Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, people without the disease started abusing it because of the enhanced mind capabilities that it gave them, and this led to a generation of children with a disease called hyperempathy syndrome, in which they feel the perceived emotions of others.
- This is a plot point in the earliest issues of Perry Rhodan. One important reason the Human Aliens stranded on the moon are even willing to consider working together with the primitive humans who've only just managed to land there themselves is because Earth medicine has recently developed a cure for the disease that threatens the life of the alien expedition's scientific leader — a form of leukemia.
- The Succession Duology mentions at one point that every time the main gun is fired, the crew develop "the simplest and most easily cured cancers" as a side effect.
- The (initial) plot of Crusade revolved around a search for a cure for an alien plague.
- Eureka: It's mentioned in one episode that the town has cures for the common cold, male pattern baldness, and a few other small but annoying diseases.
Clerk: Still too expensive for mass production, but living in Eureka does have its perks.
- The Outer Limits (1995):
- In "Blood Brothers", a scientist tries to develop an effective Knockout Gas to be used by the riot police. However, despite the numerous trials, the gas still has a 20% lethality rate. One experiment results in the test monkey not only surviving but also becoming immune to any and all disease or poison. The scientist's Corrupt Corporate Executive brother wants to withhold this cure-all from the general population, pointing out that this would result in overpopulation. However, he uses the drug himself to cure his hereditary condition. In the end, though, it's revealed that the drug's effect is extremely temporary. In fact, it rapidly drains all the body's resources, leaving the person a frail shell only surviving through the use of life-sustaining machines.
- "The New Breed" involves the use of nanites to monitor and repair cells. However, their "repair" feature doesn't appear to have a limit, and they start improving what they see as flaws of the human body. The person who injects himself with them tests his ability to hold his breath underwater... and the nanites end up giving him gills. Eventually, he also gets eyes on the back of his head to improve his vision. In the end, the inventor of the nanites, his friend, ends up having to kill him. It should be noted that the nanites are still in the testing phase, and the guy only takes them because he has terminal cancer.
- In "The Voyage Home", the alien in the form of Pete Claridge tells Ed Barkley that it will give humanity the cure for cancer once it arrives on Earth.
- In one episode of 7 Days (1998), the cure for cancer mutates into a plague that wipes out all life on earth.
- Stargate SG-1:
- The Goa'uld symbiote can cure cancer, among other diseases. Jacob Carter became a Tok'ra host for this reason.
- Tretonin does the same thing, though the original recipe for it used defective symbiotes so it wasn't as effective as it could have been. Also, if people ever stopped taking it (and the planet in question was running out quickly), they would die.
- While the formula for Tretonin was later altered to allow the people of Pangara to safely come off the drug and/or make it less addictive, Jaffa who switched to Tretonin to free themselves from their reliance on Goa'uld symbiotes, end up dependent on taking the drug to maintain their immune system.
- Star Trek:
- Within 50 years of First Contact with the Vulcans, a human scientist discovered a cure for most forms of cancer. As a result by the time Star Trek: Enterprise takes place, previously deadly cancers like lung cancer are easily treatable in humans.
- A throw-away line in Time Trax mentions that cancer has been cured between the 20th and the 22nd centuries.
- In Torchwood, there's a drug called "Reset" which "restores the human body to its factory settings". It can cure cancer, AIDS, diabetes, pretty much everything... but then you die from a parasitic infection.
- The Twilight Zone (1959): "The Gift", an alien come to Earth, landing near a small Mexican town. The Mexicans distrusted him, and eventually killed him, but not before he tried to give them a gift written on a piece of paper, which they burned. The town doctor who had seen this happen but was held back from doing anything grabs the paper and puts the fire out. He reads the inscription out loud.
- In the 4/17/11 installment of Curtis, a cure for cancer is found in the Film Within a Strip "The Clam". Unfortunately, the scientist who discovers it turns into a giant clam before he can tell anyone.
- A FoxTrot strip involves Paige dreaming of herself as a doctor and coming up with this, as well as an AIDS vaccine and a hiccup cure.
- That Mitchell and Webb Sound: Discussed at length in one sketch, with a man who managed to single-handedly invent a mass cure for all cancer, in the form of a simple series of pills, just so that cancer-support charities would stop bothering him. He ends up getting bothered by heart disease charities instead.
- In Chrononauts, you can time-travel to The Future and grab it, either as part of a victory condition or to trade in for some other bonus.
- In Sentinels of the Multiverse, Dr. Meredith Stinson aka Tachyon has both invented (or, at least, helped invent) a cure for cancer and released it to the public.
- In The Waiting Room, the never-seen Dr. Carson from Jamaica is rumored to have developed a serum that can cure cancer, but Larry, a Corrupt Corporate Executive at a pharmaceutical company, arranges to prevent the serum from being brought to the U.S. so that his company's cancer-treatment drugs will go unchallenged.
- In some installments of the Civilization series, "Cure for Cancer" is a "wonder of the world" that a civilization is able to build.
- In Judgment, it's eventually revealed that the various murders that the protagonist is investigating are all part of a government conspiracy involving an experimental cure for Alzheimer's Disease. Unfortunately, said experimental cure is completely lethal to humans and the murder victims involved are all either failed test subjects or killed to cover up the conspiracy.
- The Matrix: Path of Neo has a Chinese herbalist who tries to make a cure for an unnamed terminal illness... for his young granddaughter. A shot at the end of the level shows the front page of a newspaper that reads, 'Miracle cure heals girl'.
- At the beginning of Saints Row IV, you are presented with the choice of passing a bill to cure cancer or ending world hunger. Your decision doesn't matter since Earth is soon subject to an alien invasion and blown up shortly thereafter.
- Wasteland 2 has you search for a cure for lung cancer for a minor character. Unlike most examples on the list, finding the cure is treated like any other Fetch Quest, and only has tangential bearing on the main plot.
- XCOM 2 has Advent gene therapy clinics in the various city centers that have cured many of humanity's ills, such as malaria, AIDS, and yes, cancer. Of course, this being XCOM, Advent requires citizenship and implanted brain chips of those receiving these services. And of course, humans at these clinics are frequently kidnapped and murdered in gene experiments so the Advent rulers can find a cure for their cancer by cloning new superhuman bodies to possess.
- In Camp Camp's Halloween Episode, the kids need cold medicine, so they try to find some in the lab on Spooky Island. There, Space Kid finds a box labeled "Campbell Corp. Cure for Cancer!" and tosses it aside, though since the box had a fine print saying "Warning: Extremely Toxic. Do Not Consume.", it wouldn't have done people any good anyway.
- In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Dracula discovered the cure for cancer and hid it on Mars.
Dracula: It's really funny, when you figure it out it's going to seem so obvious. But I don't want to give it away. It'll be really funny.
- Freefall: While pilfering a closet of pharmaceuticals, Sam dismisses several bottles of "over-the-counter cancer cures" and "cheap life extension pills" as worthless.
- Keychain of Creation (an Exalted webcomic) has two demigods traveling Creation undercover.
Marena: That means no curing cancer willy-nilly.
Misho: Oh, but it's so easy once you know how to do it!
Marena: It's still not period, mister.
- Played with, in a way, in the nondescript spacefuture of Manly Guys Doing Manly Things, in which they don't find a cure for cancer, but they manage to form a symbiotic relationship with cancer, and it becomes more of a healing factor than a disease.
- A Penny Arcade strip shows a What If? scenario where Tycho cures cancer as a result of not becoming friends with Gabe.
- PHD, "Tales from the MD Anderson Cancer Research Center", which is mostly about debunking the idea that that there is one singular cure for cancer.
- Stand Still, Stay Silent: This role is played by the cure for the Rash, the disease that caused The End of the World as We Know It ninety years ago, as far as humanity's survivors are concerned. One of the comic's plotlines involves the main cast finding a lead toward a cure discovered Just Before the End in the Forbidden Zone that they are exploring. It ticks the strange side effect box as it works, but also causes slow and irreversible brain death. The story gives every hint of the side effect actually being a type of soul-displacement that went under the radar due to the utter lack of mages at the time.
- Trevor (2020): Dr. Maddison had been trying new, experimental treatments on terminally ill patients, and by the time the new members of the medical team were brought on, Trevorís leukemia had been long gone. However, things only got worse from there.
Enid: In its place was something incredible.
- According to Chuck Norris Facts, his tears can cure cancer. It's too bad that he never cries, ever.
- SCP Foundation:
- SCP-500 consists of a number of small pills that will cure absolutely any disease (including some of the really creepy supernatural diseases the Foundation has stored) with no chance of relapse or side effects. The only problem is that there aren't very many of them, and no one has any idea where they came from or how to make more. It was found, however, that using SCP-038 to clone the pills resulted in pills that work 30% of the time with no damage to the original pill. Not perfect, but far better than nothing. Unfortunately, the cloned pills deteriorate quickly, so marketing them is impossible, but at least Foundation members don't have to worry about diseases.
- SCP-1300 can remove the majority of tumors and inject a fluid that replaces the function of any damaged organs, and the foundation does occasionally allow terminal cancer patients to use it, but it sometimes decides to liquify a patient instead of healing them.
- A vingiette in How to Write Badly Well has a Mad Scientist work on a cure for cancer for the decidedly ignoble goal of putting a charity out of business and ensuring he won't have to read any more survivor sob-stories.
- Family Guy: The episode "The Old Man and the Big 'C'" is about Stewie and Brian discovering that Carter Pewterschmidt is withholding a cure for cancer, because he makes more money from the medical expenses of treating cancer patients.
- Men in Black: The Series: One of the pieces of Imported Alien Phlebotinum MIB has is the cure for the common cold. When Jay says he thought it didn't exist, Elle says that it does, it's just "not common". Apparently, it's just a pill you take once.
- The Bakshi Mighty Mouse episode "Don't Touch That Dial" features a Rocky and Bullwinkle spoof ("Rocky and Hoodwinkle"). It opens with the narrator noting that Hoodwinkle was working on a cure for cancer.
Narrator: Hoodwinkle the none-too-bright moose was whipping up a formula that would eliminate the nation's number one affliction...
Hoodwinkle: At last...a cure for loud Hawaiian shirts!
- A Robot Chicken sketch with the Popeye gang had a guardian angel show Wimpy a world where he never lived a la It's a Wonderful Life — except that it was a virtual paradise where a cure for cancer had been found... by Alice the Goon!
- Played for Laughs in South Park, where the cure for AIDS turns out to be injecting large amounts of finely shredded cash money into the bloodstream.
- Gleevec, Taxol, Cannabinoids. No, really, and etc, etc.
- Antimatter. No, really.
- Surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy are actually rather efficient assuming the disease was identified at an early stage.
- The simple expedient of directly injecting a tumor with chemotherapy drugs to ensure that the tumor gets the lion's share shows much greater promise than general injection of the drugs. For some reason, this wasn't thought of until ~2008.
- Experimental therapies showing promise include engineered nanobodies which attach specifically to cancerous cells and either deliver apoptosis-inducing chemicals without harming the healthy tissue or simply allow the body's immune system to recognize cancer as a hostile entity. This kind of therapy requires custom-tailored nanobodies made specifically to match the type of cancerous cells manifest in a patient. As advances in cheaply and efficiently sequencing human genomes make the procedure of recognizing cancerous mutations simpler, it is quite probable that personalized medicine will be the key to defeating cancer on a case-by-case basis.
- Several drugs are really effective at certain types of cancer. One drug reduced the size and amount of tumors in half in three days! Problem is that it was only for a specific type of melanoma.
- Disabling the Cancer Cell's Do Not Eat signal is also possible.